Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fashion: Fiddle-Dee-Dee

The Debate:
Over the past two weeks I have been monitoring the response to a question that I posed to fellow costume enthusiasts regarding the accuracy of historical detail in period films.  It seems that many have an opinion on this topic and some are quite passionate.
I heard from professional costume designers who justified their creative anachronistic choices in the name of character development.  While some stressed the interference of directors and other production designers on the project.  I heard from vintage dealers who supplied through rental or sales, actual pieces or textiles.  They blamed the lack of research on the part of the designer or subordinate who would ask for "the 1920's, but would be disappointed in the silhouette and choose the 1940's instead!
It seems many of us, at least those dedicated to the material culture of the past, have had very distracting and consequently, disappointing viewing experiences, by the inaccuracies of the production designer.  I for one have had many such experiences and have often left the theater or turned the channel feeling frustrated.
The recent production of the Tudors is a case in point.  I don't know which was worse.  The choice of textiles for Renaissance England, which I could forgive, or the fact that Henry VIII never gained any weight!  The popularity of the show among younger viewers, who usually accept anachronisms without question, infuriated the historian in me.
Does this mean that my interpretation is any more valid than the choices made by the production designers?  It certainly does not.  But I do have to admit, that as a costume historian, I know that the efforts of Masterpiece Theatre never disappoint, on the contrary, they usually inspire and the slowest of plot lines can be forgiven anything if the costuming is right.
The Example:
For those of you who know me well, you know the impact that the film version of Margaret Mitchell's, "Gone With the Wind" had on me.  I first read the book in the winter of 1974.  In July of that year, it came to our local theater, the Roxie!  Unable to find anyone who shared my desire to view the film, how many other 14 year old boys are interested in the trials and tribulations of a southern belle, I chose to go alone.  For the grand sum of 50 cents, ironically the same price as the 1939 ticket, I settled in for what I was expecting to be a regular 2 hour show.  I even got up to leave at intermission, upset that only half the movie had been filmed, when I overheard two women behind me talking about the splendor of the second half.  Thank God for the empowerment of eavesdropping!  By the time that the film had finished, like everyone else, I had cried and was sure that somehow Scarlett would get him back.
When my parents picked me up at the theater I rattled on about the magnificent costumes, certain that I had seen the most accurate representation of the period.  So engrossed was I during the film, that the absence of many secondary characters and plot lines were hardly even noticed.  I immediately began to re-read the novel that summer.  I think that I have read the novel at least 12 times and seen the movie just as often.
In 1987-88, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art launched an exhibit, "Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film".  I never saw the exhibit, but several years latter, Edward Maeder spoke on the subject to the Costume Society of Ontario.  When he addressed the work of costumer Walter Plunkett, I naturally was very interested.
As part of his advertising campaign, Selznick released a number of articles on the pre-production planning of his epic film.  His search for the actress to play Scarlett O'Hara is legendary.  He used a similar approach around the costuming efforts of Walter Plunkett.
Looking for authenticity, or at least giving the appearance to be, Plunkett's travels in the deep south to source first hand examples of civil war era fashions, would be as familiar to the readers of the hollywood tabloids as the hype around who would play Scarlett O'Hara.  It was a stroke of marketing genius and it succeeded in keeping the publics attention over a period of nearly 3 years from the publication of the novel to the premier of the movie.
Maeder, in his article, "The Celluloid Image:  Historical Dress in Film", addresses many problems with the costuming efforts of GWTW and other period productions of this golden age of film.  I won't go into them here, but suggest for those of you who are interested in the topic to try and find a copy of the exhibition catalogue.
I thought instead that it might be fun to see what would have happened to the movie if it were to be produced today by Masterpiece Theatre.
Wardrobe assistant with Leigh's costumes for GWTW
Working with Mitchell's original text, the same approach that Plunkett would have taken, I began to look for references to help with my costuming efforts.  Surprisingly, in a novel of 1039 pages and rich with descriptive prose, Mitchell provided very little detail about the specifics of dress.  I was surprised myself upon my most recent re-reading, expecting to find wonderful lush descriptions.  For Plunkett, this would have been somewhat of a blessing.  He would remark in an interview, that if he had followed Margaret Mitchell's text to the letter, that every important dress in the movie would have been green!  Even the now iconic red velvet number, worn to Ashley Wilkes' surprise party, should have been green.
Mitchell does provide colour and textile descriptions, and she goes on at length about war time hardships and the value of blockade run goods, but otherwise, details are left to the imagination of the reader.  Based on the written account of the dress worn by Scarlett, as the scarlett woman, it would probably look more like the example from Harper's Bazaar below.  It was described as a green watered silk gown with pink velvet roses falling over the bustle!
Mitchell will provide further scanty descriptions of Scarlett's wardrobe for the "Barbecue Dress" of sprigged green muslin and the "Drapery Dress".  Both of which have become the most iconic dresses of the film.

Plunkett sketch

True to the text, this dress was meant to be worn in both the opening scene with the Tarleton twins and the Twelve Oaks barbeque.

Selznick would later have this scene re-shot, actually five times!  The white ruffled dress would be chosen as a replacement to make Scarlett appear more "virginal".

Perhaps in the hands of a costumer more sympathetic to historical accuracy this ensemble, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, would have been copied.  It certainly would have made Scarlett's life a little easier.  The long sleeved version was ideal for her morning arrival at Twelve Oaks and with the simple change of bodice, after her nap, she could have avoided the unpleasant scene with Mammy when dressing earlier that morning.

"No you ain't.  You can't show your bosom 'fore three o'clock".  But of course, some important character development would have been sacrificed.

What can I say.  There was nothing like it in the world, and there never will be.  Plunkett followed the text verbatim and not a single viewer has ever been disappointed.  I can still feel the rush of adrenalin when I first saw this gown.

Through some cleaver detective work, it is possible for the reader to establish a time line for one costume in particular.  The only wedding gown to be created for the film, despite our heroines three marriages, is seen within the first 15 minutes of the picture.  According to the text, Scarlett O'Hara comes down the staircase of Tara on her father's arm and in her mother's wedding gown.  Mitchell provides the designer with no other details on the dress, but through careful reading, the date of the gown can be deciphered.  At the opening of the novel, the reader is told that Scarlett is 16 years old, the same age as the city of Atlanta.  In a latter conversation, she reminds her father that her mother was 15 years old when they married.  When introduced to the character of Ellen Robillard O'Hara, we are told that she is 32.  Even with my limited mathematical skills, I can still deduce that Gerald and Ellen were married in 1844.  This is not apparent in Plunkett's creation.  The sleeves allude more to 1835 as does the squared waistline and applied trimmings.  Seen in photographs, the skirt was obviously cut for the support of a hoop crinoline, which was left off.  The trailing length, in the hands of a master designer, would have been a stroke of genius given the height variation between mother and daughter, but sadly, I don't think that this was taken into consideration.

Plunkett's creation is currently being restored for the 75th anniversary of the film.

Ellen O'Hara was probably married in something more like this.  She certainly came from the background, an old Savannah family, that could have afforded her the time and finances to secure such a garment.

In the publicity material regarding the costuming for the film, it is stated that Walter Plunkett was given the license to re-create the period accurately by having many of the textiles custom woven.  Armed with clippings from the hems and seam allowances of vintage pieces, provided by the heirlooms of southern families, he was able to contract for the yardages from Pennsylvania mills.
Was the wonderful paisley patterned textile of this dressing gown/wrapper achieved by such a means?  The garment below was recently sold on ebay.  It would have made a suitable period substitute.
Throughout much of the novel, we learn of Scarlett's frustration with the rituals of 19th century mourning.  With the death of 2 husbands, her mother, her father, her daughter and eventually Melanie, like most women of her age, she would have been dressed in black for a good portion of her life.  Her flaunting of the constraints of mourning go far to develop her character and the setting of the novel, war and reconstruction do much to support her decisions, if unconventional for the time.  By December of 1863, she has given up all traces of black and is now wearing some rather shocking colours.

For her final good bye to Ashley, Scarlett is wearing a fashionable Christmas red skirt and contrasting bodice.  Maeder addresses the exaggerated shape of the skirts and 1930's cut of the bodices well in his text.  Searching through a copy of Godey's, I was able to find a long sleeved version of this bodice.  It would probably have been better suited to the winter of 1863!

Note the collar.  These Peter Pan collars are seen quite often throughout the film.

Scarlett's choice for Ashley's homecoming and Christmas dinner was a little more successful.  One of the few times we see Leigh in a sleeve that appears to have any period authenticity.

Supporting characters had their share of challenges as well.  Who can forget Belle Watling?  In one scene, where she demonstrates on camera her love for Rhett Butler in a tearful good bye, her gown is actually sleeveless!  Little puffs stand in, but look carefully.
I am not really familiar with the dress of the affluent 19th century prostitute, but if supported by a patron with the wealth of Rhett Butler as Mitchell leads us to believe, the garment from ebay below might have been a better choice.  She certainly would have had, through the support of fashionista Rhett Butler, the means to patronize the house of Worth.
Barbara O'Neil faired better as Ellen O'Hara, as did Alicia Rhett as India Wilkes.  Apart from the obvious in the size of the skirt, O'Neil could have been just as effective on film in the dress below from the collection of the "Kyoto Costume Institute".

Cammie King's costume follows Mitchell's description in colour faithfully

Reconstruction for Plunkett seems to have posed some problems.  The costuming for the film tends to follow the same silhouette as the war years.  I would imagine in the immediate aftermath of the civil war in the south, it was more rags than riches, but as Scarlett establishes her wealth, she seems not to follow the dictates of fashion.  A time line for the film, through the efforts of costuming seems to become lost or blurred at best.  Even in the text of the novel, it is unclear how far into the 1870's Scarlett's story takes us.  Mitchell does make reference to the revealing fashions of the post war world once Rhett and Scarlett become married.  Scarlett remarks on her honeymoon of the seeming immodesty of the longer bodice (possibly a reference to the cuirass?) compared to the hoops of her youth.  When married to Frank Kennedy, their is little in the choices made for costume to reveal the backward sweep and emphasis developing between 1865-1870.  The one exception is the orange and plaid mill dress.  The colour and scale of plaid both being fairly accurate to the period and as Leigh turns to move away, the camera catches the trailing skirt.  Totally impractical for the situation, perhaps a looped up skirt would have been a better choice.

At some point in the film, either just before her marriage to Rhett or during it, we should have seen something more in keeping with the examples below.

One attempt by Plunkett that I feel failed terribly is the example worn when Scarlett and Rhett are walking their daughter Bonnie in her carriage.  What was Walter thinking?  If their was one dress best left in the wardrobe department, that was it.  It is a shame that he wasn't familiar with the example below from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  This garment, by Emile Pingat, is certainly more in keeping with the refined sense of design attributed by Mitchell to her character, Captain Rhett Butler.

From my best calculations, the novel ends around 1875-76. With Scarlett now in mourning for the death of her daughter, she pays a final visit to the death bed of Melanie Wilkes. A woman for whom she has held in contempt for 16 years! Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh give one of the most poignant screen performances ever. For this scene, Leigh's collar has been exaggerated but the silhouette of her bustled gown is convincingly accurate. Once again, I turn to the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute for greater accuracy.

In the course of his career, Walter Plunkett designed costumes for 250 period films.  A pre-Law graduate, he had no formal training as a costume designer, but worked in a few movies as an extra.  In his lifetime, he would be considered by his contemporaries as an expert on historical fashion.  Was his work a detriment to the movie or did it enhance the plot and character development.  Whatever your opinion, I would welcome it.  I personally would not have had the movie any other way.  It's very excesses are what formed and shaped my desire to learn more about art, design, costume and history.  The power of the moving image can have a lasting influence, and for me, Selznick's production of Gone With the Wind blew like a hurricane through my life.


  1. I was wondering if you had any additional information about that red paisley dress. I would love to see some other views. I realize that this was an eBay item, but if you know the item number or item title I have software that can access old listings. Any assistance you can offer, would be welcomed and greatly appreciated.

  2. I enjoyed your article immensely!!! Impeccable research. Allow me to share this with people interested in the film. =)

  3. I actually liked the Peach tree strolling outfit. Why do you think it failed? Inappropriate to that period? Have you seen the dresses in the sequel to GWTW, Scarlett -- they were designed by Marit Allen. They have lots of nice designs there and more in synch with real clothes worn during that period.
    Thank you again!